Professor Elyn Saks balances academia, schizophrenia


The human brain is full of complexities — it can be both a great asset and an aggravating impediment.

Surviving · Professor Saks says her tenure at USC has given her the support to deal with juggling her work, relationships and her health. -  Courtesy of Elyn Saks

Surviving · Professor Saks says her tenure at USC has given her the support to deal with juggling her work, relationships and her health. – Courtesy of Elyn Saks

Elyn Saks, a professor at the Gould School of Law who also served as its associate dean for research and is the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, knows this all too well: She received a diagnosis of schizophrenia and acute psychosis when she was 21 years old.

“I sometimes say my mind has been my best friend and worst enemy,” Saks said. “Worst enemy for obvious reasons, best friend because when I’m working it keeps me productive and keeps me occupied.”

Saks thrives while successfully juggling therapy, medication and relationships and still enduring the social stigma that surrounds mental illness.

“I sometimes say my mind has been my best friend and worst enemy,” Saks said. “Worst enemy for obvious reasons, best friend because when I’m working it keeps me productive and keeps me occupied.”

Saks initially did not intend to enter education. While at Yale Law school, she represented psychiatric patients and children and continued her pro bono work after graduation at the Yale Legal Services Mental Health Law Project. She wanted to be a public-interest lawyer, but her experience teaching in Connecticut led her to apply for teaching positions across the country.

“USC was my best offer,” said Saks, who joined the USC law faculty in 1989.

Though Saks believes she made the best decision for her, she initially had regrets about entering the teaching field.

“I kind of felt I sold out a little when I became an academic because I wasn’t in the trenches,” Saks said. “People have different aptitudes and ways of contributing and, for me, just writing stuff that people who are good advocates could take and use was where my best contribution could come.”

However, Saks said her experience in the academic field has proved rewarding. Her gratification comes from working one on one with students.

“I enjoy helping people navigate and get resources and referrals [as well as] being a model for someone, and an ‘I-can-you-can’ type,” Saks said.

Saks is supported by good therapy, medication, family, friends and her work at USC.

“USC is an incredibly generous, kind, supportive, nurturing and intellectually stimulating place,” Saks said. “Putting all these supports in place for professors and students to thrive … it’s an incredible place.”

After winning a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2009, Saks founded the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics, which looks at mental health through an interdisciplinary lens.

Students get a unique perspective from Saks. Susie Morris, a third-year resident in the psychiatry program at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and an intern at the Saks Institute, said Saks’ teaching comes with a uniquely helpful perspective because Saks has first-hand experience with a mental disorder.

“[I find her] more credible because she is working from the inside looking out,” Morris said. “She offers a different perspective because she was actually hospitalized herself, which isn’t something you can truly learn about just by reading a book.”

Saks was hospitalized for one month in 1978 and four months in 1979. In 1982 and 1983, she was hospitalized for five months and has not been hospitalized since.

Paul Garcia, one of Sak’s former students and a current second-year law student, views Saks’ honesty as a vital addition to his learning experience.

“It was really interesting and compelling, given her life narrative, to not only be in a class and hear her talk openly about some of the struggles she’s faced, but also to see the quality of her work and how well known she is in the field,” Garcia said.

Saks is nationally renowned for her work in the mental health industry. In 2007, Saks published her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, after her friends encouraged her to tell her story.

“I had twin goals in writing it,” Saks said. “To give hope to people who suffer with schizophrenia and understanding to those who don’t.”

Saks explains how “people who are struggling, hurting or in pain could get treatment and could get relief but they don’t because they don’t want the stigma so they suffer” instead of coming forward and admitting to their condition.

“To me, the biggest problem with stigma is that it deters people from getting care, but there are also other problems,” she said. “It makes you feel lesser and stay in hiding.”

Even Saks struggled with accepting the need for medication. But she said once she did use it continuously, her life got better.

“I used to say I don’t want to use a crutch,” Saks said. “Now I say that if my foot were broken of course I’d use a crutch. Shouldn’t I treat my neurotransmitters as gently?”

Through her efforts in the field of law, Saks exemplifies her own belief that people carry overtly low expectations for those with mental illness: A doctor once told her that she should settle for being a cashier.

Saks acknowledges that not every person with her condition will attain an academic position like her but said support will go a long way. Saks’ main hope is to continue illuminating issues of mental health through her love and work.

“People with psychiatric illness want what everyone wants,” Saks said. “In the words of Sigmund Freud: ‘to love and to work.’ So, when you see someone who looks like they’re having a hard time, or they tell you they’re having a hard time be sympathetic, be empathic, try and be a good friend, try and be supportive and realize that mental illness is really no different from diabetes or other conditions.”

  • William Buttrey

    Prof. Saks’ story is certainly quite encouraging for anyone struggling with with mental health issues, whether their own, or loved ones. Her own personal contribution to understanding the issues involved is much appreciated.